A story about a man who swims to work went viral. Here's what makes his commute possible.

Benjamin David lives in Munich, and he swims to work.

Every morning, David checks the speed and temperature of the water...

All GIFs via BBC Capital/Facebook.


...puts on his swim trunks and packs his dry bag with the clothes and gear he needs for the day...

...and swims 2,000 meters, or about 1.25 miles, down the Isar River to work.

Thanks to a great video from BBC Capital, David's story went viral last week. But lost in the surprising and delightful nature of his morning commute is what's making it possible: efforts in major cities to clean up polluted urban rivers and return them to swimmers.

Cities like Paris, New York, Boston, and London have all made an effort to return their rivers to swimmers and beachgoers.

Local governments are partnering with civic nonprofits to raise funds for cleanup, natural pools, and marketing efforts. Why focus on swimming? It's affordable, safe, and fun for residents of all ages, and public access to rivers and lakes is a great way to build community and inspire people to care about their waterways.

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has made cleaning up the River Seine a priority and hopes to have open-water swimming events in the waterway for the 2024 Olympics. In July, she opened canal water pools in a section of the Bassin de la Villette canal in northern Paris. These clean swimming zones are sectioned off and filtered to ensure a safe dip.

Photos by Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images.

American cities are pushing for river pools too. For seven years, a nonprofit in New York City has been working on +POOL, a floating swimming pool in the shape of a plus sign that can filter impurities through its walls. They have a bevy of backers and great designs but are currently in a holding pattern with the city, waiting for a site to install it.

An artist's rendering of +POOL, the idea of am NYC nonprofit. Image via +POOL.

One city that's seeing the benefits of returning the river to swimmers is Portland, Oregon.

The city is split in half by the Willamette River, a thoroughfare still used to export grain and dry-dock ships. But despite Portland's eco-friendly persona, the river was long neglected and prone to sewage overflows. With the completion of the Big Pipe, a sewage infrastructure project, the Willamette has been remarkably clean and safe for swimming. Yet it was still hard to persuade residents to dive in.

Photo by Ian Sane/Flickr.

That's where local nonprofit group Human Access Project comes in. The group of volunteers pursues its mission of transforming Portland's relationship with the river by creating public spaces like access points and beaches, supporting education and conservation efforts, and, of course, jumping in for a dip. The HAP hosts the Big Float — a floating party in the river — an annual river swim with Mayor Ted Wheeler, and even has a swim team called the River Huggers. Yeah, seriously.

"For us, swimability is a platform for hope," says HAP Founder and Ringleader Willie Levenson. "Our hope is that if we can reconnect people with the river through their own self-interest, through something that will benefit them — being able to get into the water and swim — they will naturally care more about the outcomes of what's happening in the watershed. They'll naturally be more inclined to fight for this thing that they love and enjoy."

The River Huggers take to the water. Photo via Human Access Project, used with permission.

Are swimmable rivers and lakes not on your city's radar? There's still a lot you can do.

While most people don't have the time to found and organize their own nonprofit like Levenson, there are similar groups like the Waterkeepers or your local watershed council that are already doing this work. Donate your time or make a contribution to keep the good going.

You can also start using the body of water to swim, kayak, or relax. It's fun, affordable, and close to home. Check the water quality test results online before jumping in, and bring a friend or swim buddy. Let your local elected officials know you want safe access to your water and support candidates that make it a priority.

You may not use it to commute, like David, or create a float party with thousands of your closest friends, like Willie Levenson, but it's your community and your water, and you deserve a clean, safe place to enjoy it.

Beachgoers enjoy Portland's newest river access point, Poet's Beach. Photo via Human Access Project, used with permission.

Just over a year into the coronavirus pandemic, we're finally seeing a light at the end of our socially distanced tunnel. We still have a ways to go, but with millions of vaccines being doled out daily, we're well on our way toward somewhat normal life again. Hallelujah.

As we head toward that light, it's natural to look back over our shoulders at the past year to see what we're leaving behind. There's the "good riddance" stuff of course—the mass deaths, the missing loved ones, the closed-up businesses, the economic, social and political strife—which no one is going to miss.

But there's personal stuff, too. As we reflect on how we coped, how we spent our time, what we did and didn't do this past year, we're thinking about what we'll be bringing out of the tunnel with us.

And some of us are finding that comes with a decent dose of regret. Maybe a little guilt. Some disappointment as we go down the coulda-woulda-shoulda road.

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The past year has changed the way a lot of people see the world and brought the importance of global change to the forefront. However, even social impact entrepreneurs have had to adapt to the changing circumstances brought on by the Coronavirus pandemic.

"The first barrier is lack of funding. COVID-19 has deeply impacted many of our supporters, and we presume it will continue to do so. Current market volatility has caused many of our supporters to scale back or withdraw their support altogether," said Brisa de Angulo, co-founder of A Breeze of Hope Foundation, a non-profit that prevents childhood sexual violence in Bolivia and winner of the 2020 Elevate Prize.

To help social entrepreneurs scale their impact for the second year in a row, The Elevate Prize is awarding $5 million to 10 innovators, activists, and problem–solvers who are making a difference in their communities every day.

"We want to see extraordinary people leading high-impact projects that are elevating opportunities for all people, elevating issues and their solutions, or elevating understanding of and between people," The Elevate Prize website states.

Founded in 2019 by entrepreneur and philanthropist Joseph Deitch, The Elevate Prize is dedicated to giving unsung social entrepreneurs the necessary resources to scale their impact and to ultimately help inspire and awaken the hero in all of us.

"The Elevate Prize remains committed to finding a radically diverse group of innovative problem solvers and investing unconventional and personalized resources that bring greater visibility to them as leaders and the vital work they do. We make good famous," said Carolina García Jayaram, executive director, Elevate Prize Foundation.

The application process will take place in two phases. Applicants have till May 5 for Phase 1, which will include a short written application. A select number of those applicants will then be chosen for Phase 2, which includes a more robust set of questions later this summer. Ten winners will be announced in October 2021.

In addition to money, winners will also receive support from The Elevate Prize to help amplify their mission, achieve their goals, and receive mentorship and industry connections.

Last year, 1,297 candidates applied for the prize.

The 10 winners include Simprints, a UK-based nonprofit implementing biometric solutions to give people in the developing world hope and access to a better healthcare system; ReThink, a patented, innovative app that detects offensive messages and gives users a chance to reconsider posting them; and Guitars Over Guns, an organization bridging the opportunity gap for youth from vulnerable communities through transformational access to music, connectivity, and self-empowerment.

You can learn more about last year's winners, here.

If you know of someone or you yourself are ready to scale your impact, apply here today.